Science Fiction and Sociology, Economics, History, Philosophy …

Once upon a time, there was a lot of science fiction in which tech discoveries saved the day. Or so I’ve been told.

If you asked me to come up with something like that, it would be The Martian, which is very recent. The so called “Golden Age” stuff that I’m familiar with isn’t all that tech-driven. Asimov’s Foundation was rooted in psychology tempered by history. All the Heinlein I’ve read is about his philosophy.

Truth is, I suspect an awful lot of science fiction that is touted as “traditional” and “the way it ought to be” is mostly about some white guy solving all the problems with a well-timed punch to the villain’s chin.

Still, there were a lot of stories from the 1950s and 60s that either focused on or mentioned amazing tech, especially computers. Now most of us are carrying around that tech in our pockets.

These days, a story about a fancy new technology is more likely to show up on the business pages than in an SF/F mag.

Where we need to deal with tech in SF/F today, particularly in near-future stuff, is how we incorporate it into our society in a reasonable way. That is, we need tech tempered by economics, sociology, history, philosophy. Inventing new things is nice, but figuring out how to live with them is crucial.

Take for example the issues that keep coming up with the algorithms that underlie so much of our current technology. They’re supposed to be neutral, but they rarely are. And they’re being used regularly.

We have predictive policing and algorithms that look at sentencing. Yet these methods are rarely transparent, often due to trade secret rules, and difficult to challenge. It’s easy to see that an individual made a racist decision, but much harder to tell if an algorithm did.

Facial recognition systems are over-trained on white men, making them less effective for people of color and women in general.

On a more mundane note, our computer technology has been set up so that we have to adapt to the way the person who developed the program (or the algorithm they incorporated in it) wants us to do things, rather than being able to change it to the way we’d like to work.

I know a lot of writers who mourn the loss of Word Perfect or figure out a way to keep using it because they don’t like the set up of MS-Word. That’s one example.

There are those who use Linux because open source gives them more control, but the control is dependent on how much you understand about systems. Most of us want something simple that we can easily understand and modify.

Apple wants something so streamlined that we are tied completely to its system. I’m a Mac user — no way I’m going back to Windows — but I don’t like being forced into their idea of the best way to do things.

Network Effect - A Murderbot NovelI want to understand what’s going on and set things up so they work for me. Instead, I keep having to download an app or a program without having a good idea about what it really does.

The fact that these systems are developed by corporations over which we have very little control is a deeper problem.

We need to see these issues in our science fiction. It’s one reason that the Murderbot stories work so well for me. We have the Corporate Rim, where everyone’s life is under strict control. And we have places like Preservation, where they’ve got a lot of individual freedom and use tech to their own advantage.

And of course, we have the whole idea of what beings count as persons. Is Murderbot a person? Is the AI we’re developing sentient? Where are we going with these things?

Dealing with those questions is the job of science fiction. I hope that, like the computers in our pocket, some of the SF answers eventually show up in real life.

2 thoughts on “Science Fiction and Sociology, Economics, History, Philosophy …

  1. I’m frequently piqued by what SF didn’t “predict” when I started reading it. Like social media. I’m sure there were lots of pocket computers (or wrist computers, since the authors seemed to be tied to the way things were in their here and now, and everyone had a wrist watch) but who predicted Instagram? Even at the height of cyberpunk, computer users were (iirc) hackers, not suburban teenagers recording their latest boba tea…

    1. William Gibson’s later work focuses a lot on what we call “influencers” these days. He definitely brings economics and sociology into his stories. But I don’t know if his later work is still considered cyberpunk.

      I’m pretty sure that early on no one understood the power of capitalism coupled with the social urges of humans would affect the technology so strongly. But they should have. Figuring out how to make money out of teenagers and their boba tea pictures is what our country does best. You only have to look back to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll to see that business can find a way to turn our passions into business.

      Remember how, in the late 1990s, the word was no one could figure out how “The Internet” was going to be profitable. Now it’s impossible to be profitable without it. But I don’t think tech disrupted our system; I think capitalism disrupted tech. There are so many stories that can arise out of that. Which is why I read more economics than science these days.

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